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Returning to the Square Mile

Nervous tension

Body memory line 1, line 2 from Shanghai Railway Station to Shanghai South Railway Station on line 1, the red one, next stop Caobao Road, next stop Shanghai South Railway Station change here for line 2. Body memory, 18 months ago and this was the absolute centre of my world, this circular station of transit was on the conscious periphery of experience this flashing beacon of progress and regeneration and western design, corridors tunnels transits where THE SIGNPOSTS ARE ALSO IN ENGLISH. Perceptual memory of the body turning this way the bag going through the security machine. The time limit, two hours back in the zone that was so meaningful and enough more than enough, always more, there will be more to extract, exchange, interpret, research, connect, it’s too soon to leave and now I’m back. Weeks then, hours now. Was this a mistake? Will I lose something in the revisit?

Body is remembering this exit, this sign, that booth, this shop selling air bread, at the back there the cheaper food stalls, here the connection point with the Long Distance Bus Station people flow, the South Shopping Mall seems to have a new name memory tells me, the underpass to Shilong Road the same, new billboard ads, but one or two unchanged and the last section of underpass where the workshop group made acoustic sounds is still unfinished, bare concrete, escalator still not working and with Expo over it will stay like this indefinitely almost certainly.

I come up for air, warm air in the late summer and it was late winter when I left, warm weather feels somehow more appropriate in this neighbourhood. I’m walking towards Shanghai E Arts, where I lived, further along Shilong Road, just to see, as their website now goes nowhere, passing the many hostels, understanding the transit dynamics and the hustling more than I did back then, people making a living on other people’s needs, like we do. I think of Felix and his sanguine view of the two hovels, No 557 and No 559, sitting back from the road, that they would be moved on soon enough, and how I wanted to meet the families but didn’t, scooters always on the move in and out of there. And he was right; they are gone, boarded up, perhaps for Expo. USB Coffee, my first sortie, is still doing business for the aspiring and the solitary foreigner but is looking jaded, whatever that means in a Chinese context. And here it is: all the E Arts signage is still there but it feels more relaxed and there’s no one manning the security gate. I almost go in but think of the available time and turn right along Yongchuan Road towards where the migrant community was, the indoor market and the recycling centre. Later that day I hear from Lingmin that Shanghai E Arts closed down months ago. So my bewilderment about its purpose and direction were well founded.

Boarded up

When I look harder, down alleyways and behind buildings there are still plenty of signs of the frayed and on-the-streetlifestylethatI feared had been boarded up by the ‘we need to be more civilised’ authorities. Washing still hanging between the trees, scooters being fixed on the kerb, rubbish on the move, man in a boat listlessly scooping out stuff from the river, woman making dumplings in a store front. Same woman, new dumplings. New blockade to traffic entering the migrant community but still bikes and scooters can pass. Was this a symbolic visual block? I feel excited and relieved to find village life on the street just as it was, the indoor market, the recycling centre. Residents are still throwing detritus into the river tributary behind their dwellings and at this time of year I can smell it. Of course the rivers are polluted. What was I thinking of? Professor Shen Ji had it on the nail. Why wasn’t it clearer to me in 2009 when I lived here? Was I inventing a protective romantic gloss? The owner of the shop selling tea recognises me or at least we exchange a smile. I keep moving but I cannot reconnect with where and when this was my existential locus. What do I expect from this rushed return? Is it me that’s different?

This is a place. Just a place. It only becomes more when the investigatory creative process is engaged. The ‘square mile’ context was everything. It was a work, a durational piece. I cannotre-engagein the same way. I am out of the loop. Does this question some of my perceptions at the time, some of what I took away, and have been living with since then?

Or, on the other hand this square mile in Shanghai is not just a place. It’s a microcosm and it’s revelations all still there waiting to be unpicked and exposed. Longchuan Road is Xuhui District is Shanghai is China is Chinatown is Soho is Gerrard Street is Hong Kong is Taiwan is Macau is Confucius is the I Ching is the world shifting.

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